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Manuel “Manny” Aguirre

I met Manny in 2004. My book OUR HALLOWED GROUND: World War II Veterans of Fort Snelling National Cemetery lent me some profile in the veteran community. John Kerry was coming to the Twin Cities during his presidential campaign. A mutual friend told me that Manny desperately wanted to attend the Kerry rally at the U and did not have a ride. I called Manny and introduced myself. I remember well the day. Manny appeared at his door in his Navy dress blues. He was short and stocky and carried himself well. Medals and campaign ribbons covered his chest. He was proud to still be able to get into his uniform. What most struck anyone about Manny was his aura – this wonderful presence and joy of life. So when we parked and headed to the arena, reporters immediately overwhelmed us. Shortly thereafter, a staffer from Kerry’s campaign came up and whisked Manny away. When next I saw Manny, he was onstage with assorted veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, all seated behind the podium from which Kerry spoke.

Manuel Joseph Aguirre was born June 3, 1925 in Mason City, Iowa. His parents were Mexican migrant workers. Manny enlisted in the United States Navy in 1942 at the age of 17 and found himself on the landing ship USS Ozark. The Ozark was the host ship for LCVPs: Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel, also known as the Higgins Boat. This was a shallow-draft boat made of plywood (thirty-six feet by ten feet), which was used to offload men – thirty-six at a time – from the Ozark and ferry them to shore. There was no protection from enemy fire. Seaman First Class Manny Aguirre was the coxswain on an LCVP. The Navy assigned him for his short stature. A taller coxswain would be too visible above the bow of the craft. Of course, the plywood frame of the craft was no protection. And at a speed of roughly ten miles per hour, not to mention dodging barriers and floating dead, the Higgins Boat was an easy target. Manny was responsible for navigating his boat and its load of fighting soldiers to shore and then returning to the Ozark for the next load. The Navy commissioned the USS Ozark on September 28, 1944. She set out to sea for Pearl Harbor and then made her way to Marshall Islands in the South Pacific. The ship’s crew trained intensively throughout December 1944 in preparation for the landing of the U. S. Sixth Army in The Philippines. In January, the Ozark and her crew headed into the fray.

U. S. Naval forces commenced an intense bombardment of the shore in Lingayen Gulf on the island of Luzon in The Philippines on January 6, 1945. The Japanese attacked from the air. Kamikazes hit the light cruiser USS Columbia twice that day.

The war began for Manny Aguirre and his shipmates as the Ozark approached Lingayen Gulf on the afternoon of January 7. A Japanese warplane screamed overhead just above the Ozark’s masthead. Pursuing Navy fighters shot down the plane moments later. The crew’s relief was short-lived. On the following morning, a Japanese bomber passed overhead and released its load, narrowly missing the Ozark. As dusk approached that evening, more serious action commenced. A formation of Japanese bombers passed overhead while kamikazes pounced upon the naval formation from all directions. One kamikaze screamed towards the Ozark, headed for the ship’s port beam. The Ozark’s antiaircraft guns unleashed a torrent of steel at the fast-approaching suicide bomber, but impact seemed inevitable and every braced for the explosion. At the last moment, the kamikaze exploded in a ball of flames. It was an experience that would be repeated. The memories of the kamikaze nightmare would remain forever.

United States forces landed at Lingayen Gulf on January 9, 1945. The nearly two hundred landing ships of Task Force 79 unleashed their LCVPs to disembark the advance forces of XIV Corps. The air swarmed with Japanese warplanes, including kamikazes. Manny Aguirre navigated his LCVP to shore back and forth all day. He dropped off soldiers and returned with casualties. The LCVP’s plywood frame offered no protection from strafing Japanese planes. The Japanese managed to extract its price from the American attack force. LCVPs did their best in the midst of the chaos to make their way to the survivors of sinking ships. At one point, Manny’s LCVP assisted in rescuing Navy crewmen, survivors of a kamikaze attack, from the water. The USS Ozark and others set out to sea so as not to be easy targets. Manny ran full throttle to catch up with the Ozark as she departed.

By the end of the day, the U.S. Army had sixty-eight thousand men ashore. The Ozark left Lingayen Gulf that night with Transport Squadron Thirteen for Leyte Gulf, Philippine Islands. By January 12, kamikazes sank twenty-four ships and damaged sixty-seven others at Lingayen Gulf. Among these were three battleships, a heavy cruiser, a light cruiser and two destroyers.

Following the Lingayen landings and subsequent repairs, the USS Ozark sailed for Guam on 5 February 1945 to load a company of the 3rd Marine Medical Battalion headed for Iwo Jima. The Ozark arrived at Guam on the 7th of February and on the 8th sailed for Saipan to join Transport Squadron 15. Transport Squadron 15 set sail for Iwo Jima on February 16. They arrived off of Iwo Jima early on the morning of February 19 and witnessed the terrific pre-dawn bombardment and strafing of the eastern beaches.

The first wave of the 30,000 Marines of the Fifth Amphibious Corps went ashore at Iwo Jima on the morning of February 19, 1945. Manny Aguirre’s LCVP and others brought three waves of troops ashore at Iwo Jima that day. Iwo was no different than Lingayen. The air was filled with kamikazes. For the next week, while the Marines fought against fierce Japanese resistance, Manny moved wounded Marines to the Ozark, which served as a hospital ship. He also took dead Marines back to the beach to be buried.

The LCVPs of the USS Ozark continued logistic support to the beach and withdrew casualties until 27 February. On that day, the Ozark embarked for Guam with an augmented medical team and over six hundred wounded Marines. There were burials at sea along the way. The Ozark arrived at Guam on March 4 and disembarked the surviving Marines.

The Ozark then became part of Transport Squadron 13 at Leyte in The Philippines and rehearsed for the landings at Okinawa.

Initial US landings on Okinawa began on March 26 in the Kerama Islands to the west of Okinawa. On the 31st, Marines occupied Keise Shima. Transport Squadron 13 arrived at Okinawa on April 1, just as the main landings began on the west coast of the island. The American armada consisted of thirteen hundred ships. Kamikazes rained down on them. On the first day, Manny Aguirre and the crew of the USS Ozark witnessed a kamikaze hit the battleship USS West Virginia. The USS Ozark immediately offloaded troops on Okinawa. The LCVPs were busy for hours and sixty thousand Americans were ashore by the end of the first day. The USS Ozark remained at Okinawa, providing logistic support to beach operations until 10 April.

By the end of the Battle of Okinawa, American forces shot down some three thousand five hundred kamikazes. Some managed to get through the wall of steel sent into the sky. The kamikazes sank 30 American ships and damaged over 200 others, killing some four thousand U. S. sailors. That included twenty-eight killed when a kamikaze hit the hospital ship USS Comfort.

The USS Ozark returned to Guam then moved supplies in the islands. The next objective for the U. S. military after Okinawa was Japan itself. On August 6, 1945, the U. S. dropped an A-bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, the U. S. dropped an A-bomb on Nagasaki and Japan sued for peace.

On 16 August, the Ozark was enroute to a rendezvous with the U. S. Third Fleet and Tokyo Bay. A destroyer picked up a sonar ping and proceeded to depth charge a possible submarine. The ships commenced evasive maneuvers, during which time the wake of a torpedo crossed the bow of the Ozark. The Ozark proceeded without further incident.

The Ozark rendezvoused with the Admiral Bull Halsey’s U. S. Third Fleet on 17 August. On the 19th, the Ozark received orders to receive a thousand 1000 Marines and Navy enlisted men from various ships of the fleet. The transfer took place while the fleet steamed ahead. The process took two days around the clock.

Halsey led his Third Fleet into Tokyo Bay on August 29 and the USS Ozark disembarked her special landing force of Marines. Manny Aguirre and his fellow shipmates were in the tiger’s den. On August 31, the Ozark had the honor of bringing on board the first of recently liberated Allied prisoners of war. Manny Aguirre was present in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945 when the Japanese delegation stepped aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo to sign the formal surrender. The Ozark was anchored next to the Missouri and Manny remembered well seeing the dignitaries on deck. He could make out General MacArthur himself.

The Ozark remained in Tokyo Bay until September 8, 1945. She left, bound for the United States mainland with stops at Guam and Pearl Harbor. She carried precious cargo, nearly a thousand liberated Allied prisoners. All did not survive the voyage and there were burials at sea.

Back in the United States, Seaman 1st Class Aguirre and his shipmates received an unforgettable welcoming as the USS Ozark entered San Francisco Bay. The date was October 2. Military and civilian ships blew their horns and shot water into the air and people cheered as the ship sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge. The reception was given to returning veterans, but particularly to former prisoners of war, such as those aboard the Ozark.

The United States Navy discharged Manny Aguirre on Jan. 19, 1946. He just missed seeing his mother. She passed away on Dec. 9, 1945.

Manny Aguirre married and raised four children: three boys and a girl. He worked as a butcher in a meatpacking house until the plant closed in 1979. He was a man well known and well liked. He was honored to serve as Grand Marshal of the 2010 Cinco de Mayo parade on St. Paul’s West Side. He died Nov 1, 2013.